System for Emmy picks finally gets fix

How the Academy got its voting right

It ain’t rocket science. Actually, rocket science is a tad less complicated.

But the Primetime Emmy voting process is finally earning some raves this summer, as the TV Academy’s most recent tweaks appear to have opened the door to several new faces — without neglecting the most deserving of the old.

“This year’s nominations are certainly looser and better received than last year’s,” TV Academy chairman Dick Askin said on nomination day in July.

The TV Acad has to pull off a feat that the Grammys and Oscars don’t: keeping things fresh and exciting when the same shows are eligible year after year.

Hence the flurry of rule changes over the past few kudofests.

Earlier in the decade, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences went through several different categories to award the exploding reality genre before finally settling on the current system.

Last year, responding to criticism that too few critically acclaimed but low-rated shows (and the thesps from them) were overlooked by Acad voters, the org completely overhauled its nomination process in key categories.

The results were mixed. So the Acad went back to the drawing board and came up with this year’s formula.

Here are a few of the year’s top fixes:

Righting the ribbon

Last year, a blue-ribbon panel — taking a look at the top vote-getters as determined by the broader Academy electing body — was introduced to make the final call on series and thesp awards.

The problem: Blue-ribbon panels don’t accurately reflect the org at large.

That led to this year’s compromise: The entire Academy votes for outstanding drama and comedy while performers vote for top thesp. Their picks are then narrowed to top-10 lists, which are then screened by blue-ribbon panels in Los Angeles and New York.

Panelists rank their faves, from one to 10, and their votes are then tabulated. (That part’s new, too — last year, panelists watched only some of the finalists and gave them letter grades.)

The Academy then weighed the popular vote and the blue-ribbon panel vote, giving each 50%.

“From those combined votes, that weighted scoring, we have our nominees,” says TV Academy rules topper John Leverence. “It’s an attempt to get the will of the people.”

Phoning it in

Performers on the blue-ribbon panels who pick best comedy and drama thesps were able to cast their votes from home. This delivered a broader base of thesps who were willing to be panel members, rather than the few who were available to commit a weekend to the Academy.

Putting in the time

The new so-called “Ellen Burstyn rule” requires that supporting actor and supporting actress nominees in a miniseries or TV movie appear in at least 5% of the program. The rule came after Burstyn was tapped in 2006 for a role in which she appeared on screen for 14 seconds.

Providing some context

Producers behind the outstanding drama and comedy series contenders were asked to whip up an essay of no more than 250 words that put the episode in context.

That rule was meant to help serialized shows explain their storylines and avoid baffling voters who haven’t seen the series. (Didn’t work this year for “Lost,” however.)

“The thinking is, we really ought to have an opportunity for people to contextualize the action in the episode being screened,” Leverence explains.

Tying up loose ends

With the September-to-May schedule increasingly becoming a relic of TV’s past — particularly on cable, which never adhered to that calendar — the Academy clarified its cutoff rule this year to accommodate shows that dangled between Emmy eligibility seasons.

Now, if a series has aired at least six episodes during one eligibility period — but still has episodes yet to air after the May 31 cutoff — those “dangling” episodes can still be considered for the previous year’s Emmys.

Case in point: The series finale of “The Sopranos” ran on June 10 — after the eligibility period closed. But most of the show’s last season was telecast prior to May 31, so that final episode could still compete in the 2007 Primetime Emmys.

On the flip side, “Pirate Master” launched May 31 — within the 2007 eligibility. But the rest of the series aired after June 1, putting it in 2008 consideration. Under the new rule, “Pirate Master’s” first seg will now be eligible for next year’s Emmys.

With the masses generally applauding this year’s nominations, Acad officials don’t expect any major changes to the process in the years to come.

“The Board of Governors is always reviewing and will once again review this process,” Leverence says. “It’s always just a matter of standard operating procedure to consider things. But there was a good feeling at the nomination press conference and the days after that we had a good, solid lineup.”

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